SITTWE, Myanmar: Homeless people fled to packed camps or clustered near their charred houses in western Myanmar Sunday, amid ongoing unrest that the UN said displaced 26,500 from mainly Muslim communities.
Dozens have died and whole neighbourhoods have been razed in clashes that began last week between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, putting further strain on relief efforts in the region.
The United Nations, which has warned that the bloodshed could imperil Myanmar’s reforms, said an estimated 26,500 — including 4,000 who fled in boats to the state capital Sittwe — had been forced from their homes by the fresh violence.
This adds to some 75,000 people already crammed into overcrowded camps after unrest in June.
Thousands of homes have been destroyed in the latest wave of arson. A Rakhine official who declined to be identified said violence flared again Sunday in the Pauktaw area, one of around eight affected townships.
Most of those made homeless have remained near their villages, according to the UN, raising concerns about getting aid to remote areas.
Those who fled to Sittwe told AFP of their despair and horror.
“They torched our houses. My child was killed, my husband as well. That will not change even if I stay. Please kill all of us. It’s all I want,” said Cho Cho, a Muslim cradling a baby in her arms as she sat among throngs of displaced people on the shore near a camp on the outskirts of the city.
The distraught 28-year-old said she was afraid of more attacks.
“I do not want to stay in Rakhine State. I really hate it.”
The displaced described fleeing in panic as attackers came, scattering families and forcing people to escape with nothing.
“My father didn’t arrive. My sons didn’t arrive,” 40-year-old Mar Nu told AFP, saying she was still dizzy from the terror of the flight by boat.
Animosity between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, that has simmered for decades, erupted in the state in June after the apparent rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman sparked a series of vicious revenge attacks.
The latest fighting has killed more than 80 people, according to a government official, bringing the total death toll since June to above 170.
Myanmar’s 800,000 stateless Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh by the Myanmar government and many Burmese — who call them “Bengalis”.
They face discrimination that activists say has led to a deepening alienation from Buddhists.
The UN said 21,700 of those made homeless in the new fighting were from Islamic communities.
“It is mainly the Muslims who have been displaced,” the UN’s chief in Yangon, Ashok Nigam, told AFP.
Nigam, who had just returned from a visit to affected areas, said the UN was concerned both about the potential for a further spread of violence and the difficulty of reaching the displaced in remote areas.
In Minbya township a senior police official told AFP that more than 4,000 victims, mainly Muslims, had seen their homes torched. Many were staying in tents near their incinerated properties.
The official said a heightened security presence had prevented further clashes. “They are staying between Muslims and Rakhine people,” he said.
The communal unrest is seen as presenting a serious challenge to Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government, which has ushered in a series of reforms since replacing a feared junta last year.
Zaw Htay, an official from the office of President Thein Sein, said that under a state of emergency imposed after the June unrest, security had been tightened across Rakhine state.
But the new violence had “occurred in unexpected areas”, he said.
Human Rights Watch Saturday released satellite images showing “extensive destruction of homes and other property in a predominantly Rohingya Muslim area” of Kyaukpyu — the site of a major pipeline taking gas to China.
The images show a stark contrast between the coastal area as seen in March this year, packed with hundreds of dwellings and fringed with boats. In the aftermath of the latest violence, virtually all structures appear to have been wiped from the landscape.
Other Muslims in Rakhine state have also been swept up in the latest violence.
Near the camps in Sittwe, many of the displaced people whom AFP spoke to said they were Kaman, a Muslim minority recognised as one of Myanmar’s more than 130 ethnic groups.
“My father is Muslim and my mother is Buddhist… They attacked us by defining us as ‘Rohingya’. We are not Rohingya. We did not migrate from other countries,” said Aye Kyaw, a Kaman who fled the unrest in Kyaukpyu.
The 30-year-old, who said his community had lived in Rakhine for centuries, said the Rakhine had “tortured us cruelly” and appealed for protection.